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Thankless Duty at Homeland Security

Kirstjen Nielsen’s resignation Sunday as secretary of Homeland Security is best understood as a ritual sacrifice for the failures of the American political system on immigration. Ms. Nielsen wasn’t responsible for the surge of Central American migrants arriving at the border to claim political asylum, but Donald Trump and Democrats in Congress both needed a fall guy.

As he so often does, Mr. Trump had undercut Ms. Nielsen’s authority recently by pulling the nomination of Ronald Vitiello to run the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But the President and White House staff had long set her up to take the blame for border failures with death by a thousand media leaks.

The real fault lies with a President and Congress who would rather exploit the migrant surge than do what it takes to stop it. Democrats want to blame Mr. Trump for family separations and supposed cruelty to immigrants. Mr. Trump wants to sound tough on border security to appeal to his political base. Ms. Nielsen was left to cope with the consequences of a system with perverse incentives for migrants to enter the U.S. illegally and stay for years as their asylum claims wait to be heard.

Mr. Trump named Kevin McAleenan, the head of Customs and Border Protection, as acting secretary of Homeland Security. He is smart and highly competent. Mr. Trump could do much worse than nominate him as the permanent replacement. Some of the other names mentioned in the press – losing GOP gubernatorial candidates Kris Kobach and Ken Cuccinelli – are immigration grandstanders who don’t inspire confidence.

Mr. Trump’s immigration strategy is failing even on his own top priority of border security. He needs to get past his fixation with the border wall and make the case to the public and Congress for bipartisan immigration solutions.

This editorial first appeared in the Wall Street Journal.